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2/11/2014
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Elena Malykhina
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NASA Explores 3D Printing: 5 Cool Projects

What can NASA do with 3D printing? Take a look at these pioneering ideas for current and future missions.
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(Image: Made in Space)
(Image: Made in Space)

What if there were a more efficient -- and less expensive -- way to develop tools and science instruments for space missions? NASA may have found the answer with 3D printing. The agency has introduced a number of programs focused on prototyping tools using this manufacturing technique.

3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, offers NASA an alternative to traditional manufacturing approaches, given the agency's requirements for highly customized spacecraft and instrument components. The process involves computer-aided device (CAD) models and sophisticated printers that lay down successive layers of material in different shapes.

"We're not driving the additive manufacturing train; industry is. But NASA has the ability to get on board to leverage it for our unique needs," Ted Swanson, the assistant chief for technology for the Mechanical Systems Division at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a written statement. Swanson is the center's point of contact for 3D printing.

[See how NASA research can turn into tools for industry. Read NASA Launches Online Tech Licensing Tool.]

Goddard's Internal Research and Development (IRAD) has been evaluating the usefulness of 3D printing for the past two years. One area of interest is electronics -- or more specifically, the techniques for removing heat from heat-sensitive computer chips. Goddard, for example, used additive manufacturing to develop a system-on-a-chip for monitoring everything from voltages and currents to temperature levels.

Nearly all NASA centers have started using additive manufacturing for various applications, according to the agency.

The Langley Research Center in Virginia has come up with a "green" manufacturing process called the electron beam freeform (EBF3), which uses an electron-beam gun, a dual-wire feed, and computer controls to remotely manufacture metallic structures for building parts and tools. The Kennedy Space Center in Florida is researching the use of soil on extraterrestrial bodies as feedstock for building 3D habitats as well as other structures. And the Ames Research Center in California is exploring the possibility of using synthetic biology to manufacture biological materials.

In addition to different programs running at its centers, NASA has been working with Made in Space to launch equipment that will be used aboard the International Space Station, as shown in the picture above. In the near future, the agency sees astronauts using 3D printing in space to create parts and tools they need.

NASA is also taking part in a public-private partnership called America Makes, formerly known as the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII). NASA, along with four other government agencies -- the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Commerce, and the National Science Foundation -- have jointly invested in a pilot institute created to transition 3D printing into mainstream US manufacturing.

Check out our slideshow to see more of NASA's achievements in 3D printing.

Elena Malykhina began her career at The Wall Street Journal, and her writing has appeared in various news media outlets, including Scientific American, Newsday, and the Associated Press. For several years, she was the online editor at Brandweek and later Adweek, where she ... View Full Bio

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Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
2/12/2014 | 9:59:17 AM
Re: 3D food
Thanks for sharing that broadcast, Chris. 3D printing has a lot of potential in many different areas. Unfortunately, it got off to a mixed start since 3D guns grabbed the headlines. But I've read a lot about advances in healthcare and 3D -- things like printing an ear, a liver... all sorts of literally life-changing advances. Add in the business implications, and it's not an overstatement to say 3D printing is changing the world.
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
2/11/2014 | 6:13:29 PM
Re: 3D food
In this InformationWeek Radio broadcast, ConocoPhillips' CIO talks about his interest in 3D printing for the same reason as NASA -- the prospect of printing replacement parts at a hard-to-get-to-location. In his case it's a remote oil and gas rig, where they keep a lot of expensive spare parts on hand because it's difficult to deliver spare parts and extremely costly if rig isn't pumping. 

http://www.informationweek.com/radio.asp?webinar_id=72
WKash
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WKash,
User Rank: Author
2/11/2014 | 6:08:54 PM
Re: DIY space probe
Thanks for sharing the link about printing in zero gravity. It is an intriguing concept.

 
Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
2/11/2014 | 5:31:27 PM
Re: 3D food
You'd think astronauts would be pretty game to try out some of these 3D foods, considering what they have to live on during the three, six, 12 months they're in space. Of course, the armed forces are also looking into this area for obvious reasons. A big development is the ability to print using different materials with one printer. 
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
2/11/2014 | 5:00:33 PM
Re: DIY space probe
I love this question, because it never occurred to me. I found this article that described tests proving 3D printing can work without gravity, though it didn't explain how: 

http://www.space.com/21630-3d-printer-space-station-tests.html
MarkPorter
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MarkPorter,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/11/2014 | 4:25:45 PM
Re: DIY space probe
Perhaps this is a stupid question, but doesn't 3D printing, at least on earth, require gravity?  I guess perhaps it's a function of the printing medium, but I'm wondering how a device takes into account zero gravity or the gravity found on our favorite planets?
Tony A
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Tony A,
User Rank: Strategist
2/11/2014 | 3:33:27 PM
Re: materials ?!
Obviously there are reasons why certain materials were chosen to make the original parts, but if you are in space and an important part breaks or goes missing you are going to have to find a substitute, which will be neither the right shape nor the right material. A 3D printer would at least solve the first problem; the second, you use materials that can be put to a variety of potential uses. You might be able to keep a variety of 3D printing compounds around - say, one for resistance to heat, another to cold, another for flexibility. Keep a few 3D printers on board instead of a storeroom full of spare parts most of which will never get used. Develop parts that allow you to improve or extend the apparatus for scientific experiments that were conceived many years ago. This is the closest you get to having a factory on board. It sounds almost inevitable assuming the technology actually works in space.
chrisrut
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chrisrut,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/11/2014 | 3:23:08 PM
Re: materials ?! say what?
Only an idiot would try to replace a device or part made from one material with a wildly dissimilar material.

But what on earth (or in space) leads you to assume the NASA engineers would do that?

Clearly, new materils = new designs.

 

 

 
WKash
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WKash,
User Rank: Author
2/11/2014 | 3:20:05 PM
Re: materials ?!
The materials question is both central to the discussion on 3D printing, and for now, a bit beside the point. This is obviously all in the experimental stage for NASA for now.  But you know 3D printing has come of age when NASA is piloting a variety of projects around it.

 
gev
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gev,
User Rank: Moderator
2/11/2014 | 2:35:00 PM
Re: materials ?!
because apparently you have no clue what is the difference between a molecule and an atom, and still speak about chemistry.

as to designing tailored medicine, who will it be tested on - me? no thank you.

It is scary though that no one even seems to understand the question. When you 3-d print, you are confinded to materials that work with the printer. These are not the materials with which the original part where designed/tested. How then one takes a responsibility to say - here - print this part and use it in place of the one that broke?

Obviously 'printing' food (eg shaping it) has nothing to do with actually producing food.
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